It’s hard to believe that in such a beautiful lake-filled canyon, the first shots fired that marked the start of Croatia’s war with Yugoslavia occurred here. In fact the first fatality of the war was the park’s police officer. War never seems to make sense.
But that was then and now the park’s popularity is back stronger than ever, although we Americans are a little slower on traveling to here versus the Europeans. I first learned of this area watching a Rick Steves travel segment on public television and was so impressed that when I had the chance to travel to the Adriatic, I made sure this park was on the itinerary. It turned out that I was not disappointed. The park was Croatia’s first national park (1949) and now is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.I have never seen such a lush forested canyon in which stair-stepped, turquoise, crystal clear lakes are linked by numerous cascades and waterfalls. The lakes are supplied with water from three rivers. This area is truly unique in the world arena.
The Plitvice Lakes are located south west of Zagreb, Croatia’s capital and is linked from both the coast and the capital by good highways (Zagreb – Zadar). If not traveling by car, the park can be reached by a 4.5 hours bus ride from Zagreb or 4 hours from coastal Split.
As it turned out, I did use the Rick Steves tour while in the Adriatic. Our group arrived here in late afternoon and stayed at a hotel within the park. This was probably the best possible thing we could have done, since the next morning we caught the first departing park shuttle for the Upper Lakes where the road ends (gornja jezera or Okrugljak Lake) arriving at the upper trailhead before anyone else. Since this canyon is very lush with water seemingly everywhere, wooden boardwalks are about the only way to navigate the canyon. There is also a trailhead to the Lower Lakes (donja jezera) and that means that everyone, later in the day, will be going in opposing directions on the somewhat narrow boardwalks. You don’t want to be on this “ant trail” in the middle of the day with all the tour groups. That would be true frustration- particularly with a tripod.
After just a few minutes of walking, we were crossing over clear, botanical ponds with delicate waterfalls as backdrops to the scene. At this early time of the morning the lighting was soft and taking beautiful pictures was effortless. As we continued on downstream, we reached the first large lake of the 16 lakes in the canyon. The lake waters are so clear that it looks like a person could just reach down and scoop up a hand full of the numerous trout along the shorelines.
I think some of the best spots within the canyon are the transition zones between each lake. Cascades and waterfalls hug the trail and boardwalks and it was slow going only because I felt the need to plant my tripod and take a picture every 30 feet. In fact at one spot, the boardwalk routes out over one of the lakes and photographers can turn back around and photograph the many cascades dropping into the lake – great perspectives! Also a grand vista of the canyon, lakes, and waterfalls can be seen mid-way down the switchbacks from the Lower Lakes trailhead.
Eventually the trail reaches the last of the lower Lakes where a spur trail climbs to Veliki Slap (Big Waterfall) which plunges 250 feet down into the river canyon. I got so engrossed in shooting the rock terraces and plants near the base of the waterfall, I never actually made the ascent. Also near the shore of the lowest lake are grottoes and caves to peer into.
As I climbed back out of the canyon from the Lower Lakes, I glanced back down into the river canyon to see the boardwalks completely jammed with visitors and realized that our group had “done it right”.
I recommend staying inside the park at one of the three hotels available (Jezero, Plitvice, Bellevue). We used Hotel Bellevue which had a bit of sterile “past Yugo” atmosphere, but the spacious room and great location made up for it.
There are pensions available close to the park, although road traffic could be a bit heavy for pedestrians walking to the park. I noticed while researching for this article, that it is recommended to pick your lodging that has restaurant on site since there is limited eating establishments in this area. Pension Plitvicka is close and has a breakfast room and restaurant. Guesthouse, Villa Mukinja, is in the middle of the park.
The park admission ticket includes a bus ride to the Upper lakes (self drive is not allowed). The park website: www.tzplitvice.hr The area can be covered in a hurried half day, but I would recommend hiking late afternoon, stay overnight, and hike again in early morning to avoid the mid-day congestion. The park has toilets, picnic tables, souvenir shop, self service restaurant, and a shuttle boat across Lake Kozjak to the bottom of the Upper Lakes.
Note: the park stays open year-round from dawn to dusk and even though the ticket booths, boat and shuttle-bus operate only during the day, it is possible to hike into the park after “normal” hours.
Lush greenery in summer, water volume highest in spring & summer. July & August are the busiest times. If you desire to blur the waterfalls and cascades for the silky look, don’t forget your tripod. A polarizing filter is useful to reduce the lakes’ surface reflection and saturates the beautiful turquoise color.
At some spots the nearby cascades could be in the shade with a background lake in full sun. Bracketing exposures and combining in computer post processing later should be considered.
George Graves specializes in landscape & travel photography, particularly of wilderness and coastal areas of California; as well as images throughout the world which illustrate the unique distant lands and the local people. He has been published in world-wide magazines such as Australia Home & Garden and his fine art prints are on display at Bronze,Silver, & Gold Gallery in Cambria on the central California coast. His website blog is devoted to articles, such as this one, which provides his first hand photographer’s experiences and photo tips at select world travel destinations. To view more of my images, please visit my Adriatic Gallery at www.ggravesphotography.com – Thanks!